Despite the increasing acceptance of working at home, a number of people—particularly in the creative industries—still see value in working in the office.
“What early digital commentators missed is that even if we can work from anywhere, that does not mean we want to,” write Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel in Harvard Business Review. “We strive for places that allow us to share knowledge, to generate ideas, and to pool talents and perspectives. Human aggregation, friction, and the interaction of our minds are vital aspects of work, especially in the creative industries.”
Working in an office with other people might satisfy an even more basic human need, writes Mario Small in Pacific Standard: We get lonely.
“Every year, but a few weeks into the summer, I inevitably find myself crawling back to the office, at first one or two days and eventually most days of the week,” Small writes. “Well before the Fourth of July holiday, I commute to the office almost as regularly as a punch-clock worker. The reason is isolation.”
While social networks such as Facebook give us the opportunity to make connections with sympatico people around the world, paradoxically they can make us feel even more lonely, writes Stephen Marche in the Atlantic. Loneliness, in turn, creates health risks, he cautions.
In contrast, regular work outside the home remains the most important way, outside the family, of ensuring social interaction, Small writes. And this interaction is important for more than just making sure we remember how to dress and to eat with a fork. “A defined physical space with a set of loosely connected people working toward a common goal, the office contains the most consistent set of individuals the average white-collar worker will encounter regularly outside family,” he writes.
This communication doesn’t necessarily have to be about work to be valuable, Small adds. “For many of the ordinary but necessary, small scale but often consequential needs of everyday life — to get an opinion, to complain, to find empathy, to share good news, to check a fact quickly — what people need is not a best friend, a family member, or a therapist, but someone who is available and not a total stranger,” he writes. “The simple opportunity to run into others may be one of the most overlooked privileges of modern work life, and the one aspect of the office that work from home can rarely replicate. The water cooler chat became ubiquitous in the workplace because talk, as water, sustains life.”
Working in an office also tends to make it easier to have work-related discussions as well, writes James Surowiecki in the New Yorker. “Telecommuting makes it harder for people to have the kinds of informal interaction that are crucial to the way knowledge moves through an organization,” he writes. “The role that hallway chat plays in driving new ideas has become a cliché of business writing, but that doesn’t make it less true. Much of the value that gets created in a company comes from the ways in which workers teach and learn from each other. If telecommuters do less of that, the organization will be weaker.” In-person meetings also help foster trust, he adds.
“Teams drive innovation, and teams work better when people are in the same place,” agrees Dr. Keith Sawyer in the Huffington Post. “Serendipitous encounters drive creativity, and they won’t happen if everyone is working from home.”
A Gallup study also found that, while telecommuting did make people feel more engaged than full-time office workers, that was true only for people who worked at home up to 20 percent of the time. Beyond that, there was a point of diminishing returns, the study found. People who worked at home more than half the time had the same level of engagement as someone who worked in the office.
Ironically, working in an office also helps ensure that people don’t work too much. Despite the reputation of telecommuters in their pajamas on the couch watching soap operas, people who work at home often report “work creep” that results in their checking and responding to email messages from dawn till midnight. Working in an office can make it easier to leave work behind for a while. One study found that more than half of telecommuters actually worked more than 40 hours per week—unpaid overtime.
Ratti and Claudel point out that working in an office offers so many such benefits that small businesses and individual proprietors are setting up coworking arrangements so that they can work with other people and gain some of these benefits. Moreover, insights gained from such arrangements could end up informing office design for everyone, they add.
“Understanding how the workforce connects within a flexible working environment is crucial for designing and operating next-generation offices,” Ratti and Claudel write. “New digital tools are emerging to measure human connections and spatial behavior and how they relate to productivity and creativity. Real-time data analytics paired with digitally integrated furniture and buildings are just the beginning. Eventually, they may even enable the creation of workplaces that respond and evolve on their own over time.”
Suroweicki observes that Google encourages more of its employees to come to the office and stay there by making its offices as attractive and benefit-filled as possible. “It’s telling that the companies, like Google, that are shaping the digital world are also the ones that have invested the most in building corporate campuses outfitted with every perk imaginable,” he writes. “Even as they make a remote-access future possible for the rest of us, they’re doing everything they can to preserve an office environment that’s surprisingly old school.”
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